My Personal ‘Nanny Diary’
There’s a moment in “The Nanny Diaries” when the mom, who is conducting a job interview with the nanny, takes her on a tour of the living quarters – in this case, a vast apartment on Manhattan’s wealthy Upper East Side. The apartment is immaculately decorated, with not a tiny stray shoe or juice stain marring the acres of pale carpeting. It is here that I stop, sigh happily, and know that I am readying a fairy tale as fanciful as the Mary Poppins tale evoked by the book’s cover.
I enjoy a good fairy story. But I’m here to tell you that “The Nanny Diaries” has no relation to real life. Its view is that a succession of young nannies holds together the emotional life of the family by raising the child while the parents are off pursuing selfish, puerile pleasures. However, as I re-read my own mommy diaries, I am struck by how much employing a nanny resembled gaining a new – often difficult – member of the family. And that leaves Mom picking up the emotional pieces every time.
I have advertised for a nanny – or a babysitter – many times. At first, I had illusions. I am a liberal, a feminist and a professional. I became a mother for the first time at 37, and I was determined that when I found someone to watch my babies two days a week, I would not degrade her/him by asking for menial household chores as well. Caring for children was a high calling. Marie, the woman I eventually hired, had me pegged for the easy mark I was back then.
I received a number of off-target responses to my advertisement before I met Marie. We had just moved to this Midwestern industrial city from out of town. But potential nannies constantly asked, “How far are you from where I live?” Being the people-pleasing former A-student that I am, I pulled out my map and tried to give an estimate. I remember one promising woman, who had emigrated from North Africa and who came for an interview and charmed me. Her husband waited in the car. I called her later to judge her reaction, and she said, “My husband says it’s too far to drive.”
A man answered my ad. He said he knew that I would not contact him because he was male. He wrote again days later to say I was discriminating against him.
A lovely woman who grew up in Italy came to my home. She looked frail and told me she was 70 and couldn’t find work. Caring for an 18-month and 3-year-old can require some physical strength just to lift them.
“Please give me a job,” she begged. “I’ll do anything. I’ll cook for you, do your laundry.” Her memory haunts me.
Marie I agreed to meet at the local library. She had a quirky manner, and I liked that. I read a sort of gentle giantess into her slow movements. She was 10 years my senior, had raised three children and had served as a nanny for another family who she kept in touch with. My 3-year-old made puzzles while we spoke. As we wrapped it up, Marie told my daughter to pick up her puzzle pieces. I was sold. I thought, “Here’s a nanny who can bring something I’m struggling with: discipline.”
Any parent who is honest will admit that there comes a moment, when their child turns 3 or 4, that they have to make a mental pilgrimage to a lonely mountain and consider whether they have the fortitude to tell their child “no.” Learning to do this is what earns a person the title “parent.” For the first time, we who see ourselves as sensitive and peace-loving must step into our parents’ roles. We must wrestle with how small and scared we felt as the subjects of discipline, and we must figure out whether we can be scary, too, and still keep our integrity. When I met Marie, I had not faced up to these facts, but I had an inkling that they needed discipline. I asked her when she could start.
I was not prepared, however, for the onslaught of her conditions of employment. I would pay mileage each day if she drove the children anywhere. OK. I would pay her for two days a week, even when I cancelled. Check. She could take two weeks’ vacation a year, paid. This last condition she delivered with a dose of guilt about how domestic workers are exploited by employers. We surely don’t offer health benefits. Her message played right into my high-minded naïveté.
I did not foresee then that I would be counting nickels at the end of each nanny day and arguing about whether it was 16 miles or 17 to Franklin Park. I did not know, nor could I have guessed, that “nanny” was a second-choice profession, and that Marie regretted not applying for that secure county job years before. I did not know that I – as an employer, as the owner of capital, as The Man – would now bear the burden of making up for past wrongs suffered by her steelworker husband whose industry had died, taking his pension and health insurance with it.
Marie rang the front bell at 8 one wintry January morning. The skies had dumped five inches of snow the night before. “Your steps are not shoveled,” she said as I opened the door. “If I fell, you could be liable.”
“Yes, well, it’s just me here this morning, Marie,” I mumbled back. “Dan’s traveling. Do you think you could come in through the garage when it’s like this?” I’m asking myself why this hadn’t occurred to her in the first place. Maybe her martyrdom would not have been as plain.
You could have cut the tension between us with a snow shovel.
Here’s a secret. Every person home alone with little children feels overwhelmed at times. That is why we hire nannies to help. When the nanny brings extra burdens, early morning arguments and chips on her shoulder about how life has treated her, that’s not helping.
We moved again. I hired another nanny. Once more, I chose someone who I thought would bring something into my children’s lives that I lacked. I hired a Jewish grandmother. She taught my daughters to knit and sew, and she nagged my husband and me until we were scrambling over each other trying to avoid her. I would circle the block until I saw Dan’s truck in our driveway, knowing that meant he would relieve nanny of her shift.
This time, when our nanny took a summer vacation, I did not call her at the start of the school year and invite her back. I had decided that maybe my husband and I could provide what our girls needed after all – a home free of nanny-induced tension.
Oh, we still employ a babysitter two days a week, after school. But this time I hired someone I know. Don’t misunderstand, she was a stranger to me when she responded to my ad on Craigslist. But she is hyper-responsible, eager to please and, by all reports, gets straight A’s. I recognized her right away. This time, I hired a younger version of myself.